100 Film Favorites Countdown – #98: “Se7en”
(David Fincher, 1995)
Well, this might be the grisliest entry on the list. Maybe not. We’ll see.
I briefly mentioned “Se7en” during the Creepy Classic Countdown in October. It’s one of my 100 film favorites mostly because I have a weakness for the “serial killers theming their crimes around items on an iconic list” subgenre of horror. This niche includes Vincent Price’s “Dr. Phibes” films (featured in October, and likely to reappear on this list), and “Theatre of Blood,” another Price vehicle. In such films, detectives figure out the killer’s literary or biblical checklist early on, and you find yourself anticipating what morbid scenario the killer (and the filmmakers) have dreamed up to represent the list’s next item. The detectives are invariably too late to actually PREVENT any of the killer’s dastardly doings, but are hot enough on his heels to always find a crime scene resplendent in fresh gore.
Though devoid of Vincent Price, “Se7en” does a fine job of carrying the “serial killer with a checklist” tradition into the modern era. The film stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as homicide detectives in a dismal, unnamed city. Pitt is a young upstart looking to make a name for himself, while Freeman is disenchanted, world-weary, and counting the days to retirement. The two suddenly find themselves investigating a string of brutal murders, which a mysterious serial killer, referred to throughout the movie simply as “John Doe,” is crafting to correspond with the seven deadly sins.
[I’m going to cut in here and say that if you somehow have not seen this movie, and are squeamish, you might think twice before “watching along” with this particular entry in the Countdown, or even finishing this sentence] …to represent the sin of gluttony, Mr. Doe force-feeds a man massive quantities of spaghetti, and then kicks him in the side until he literally splits open. This is a distinctly gruesome image, and I have to say it took me a while before I could eat spaghetti again. But I eventually got over it.
Spaghetti is worth it.
The other killings are similarly visceral interpretations of deadly sins, liberally smeared with blood, bile, and all manner of bodily fluids. But one of Se7en’s greatest strengths lies in what it doesn’t show. This is an oft-repeated complaint which older cinephiles lob at modern horror films: It is those images which are NOT shown, but left up to the imagination, which are truly the scariest. Here, at least, this is very true, and the filmmakers use partial views, blood-stained chairs, rotting beds, and briefly-glimpsed Polaroids to imply scenarios which may have been too explicit or horrific to show directly on screen.
My major complaint with “Se7en” (beware, for here there be SPOILERS) is the resolution, with the handling of the “final 2 murders,” the deaths meant to represent Envy and Wrath. The film’s climax comes when John Doe lures Detectives Pitt and Freeman (well, Mills and Somerset, but whatever) into the desert, promising to show them the location of his last two bodies. He arranges for a mail courier to drop off a mysterious box at their meeting place. Since he has spent his life as an insane, homicidal religious zealot, Doe claims he was “ENVIOUS” of Pitt’s stable, happy family life, and insinuates that the box holds the severed head of Pitt’s pregnant wife. This enrages Pitt, who guns Doe down out of WRATH. The film ends with Pitt being taken into police custody.
I’m sure the writers thought this was a clever way to wrap things up, but in my opinion it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the murders. In the five other killings, a victim who embodies a particular sin is murdered for committing that sin: A fat guy is killed for gluttony, a lazy guy is killed for sloth, a vain model is killed for pride, etc. In the last two, you have a guy who kinda embodies envy killing SOMEONE ELSE, and a guy who kinda embodies wrath killing SOMEONE ELSE. While Pitt is shown throughout the film to have a short temper, I don’t know if getting mad when a psychopath BEHEADS HIS WIFE really counts as wrath. It’s not even murder – legally speaking it’s voluntary manslaughter, motivated by provocation. The absolute most Pitt could possibly be charged with is like 15 years in prison, and when the defendant is a cop taking revenge on his wife’s murderer, a man who has also recently slaughtered five other people, that is simply not going to happen.
I don’t have a perfect remedy to this resolution kerfuffle, but I might suggest the following: What if Doe murders Morgan Freeman, who has spent the movie wishing wistfully to leave the force and live a normal life, ENVYING the people on the outside who are allowed to live normal lives without facing the horrors he faces. Then, when Pitt finally tracks Doe to his lair, he finds that the killer has actually offed himself, leaving a note revealing that while Doe recognized sin in the world, letting his incontinent anger take the better of him and drive him to murder made Doe himself the embodiment of wrath.
Again, it’s not perfect. But a lot of people seem to like the ending of “Se7en” the way it is. At the very least, I can’t dislike the way Pitt yells “What’s in the BOX!?” Overall, “Se7en” is a well-executed and memorable horror flick. Give it a watch if you have a stomach for gore. Just don’t eat spaghetti while you watch.